You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Why outdoor dining isn’t as simple as it sounds for N.J. restaurants

NJ.com logo NJ.com 6/7/2020 By Jeremy Schneider, nj.com
a pizza sitting on top of a table: The Beekeeper's Lament at Talula's, with hot Calabrian sopresata. The Asbury Park eatery is looking to balance takeout and outdoor eating. © Peter Genovese | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com/nj.com/TNS The Beekeeper's Lament at Talula's, with hot Calabrian sopresata. The Asbury Park eatery is looking to balance takeout and outdoor eating.

Neilly Robinson and the team at Heirloom Kitchen have always prided themselves on providing “experiential dining.”

Before the coronavirus silenced thousands of New Jersey restaurants, customers flocked to the acclaimed Old Bridge spot, specifically to sit at counters that faced the open kitchen and chat with chef David Vianna — a recent “Top Chef” contestant — as their meals were prepared.

a group of people standing on a sidewalk: The typical outdoor scene at Razza in Jersey City. How it will look during coronavirus is still up in the air. © Michael Dempsey | The Jersey Journal/nj.com/TNS The typical outdoor scene at Razza in Jersey City. How it will look during coronavirus is still up in the air.

Now the Heirloom staff is attempting to move that experience outdoors, from its cozy, engaging dining room to a space far less appealing.

“We’ve never done outside dining before,” Robinson said. “[It’s] something I never thought we could execute in a strip mall off of a highway.”

Heirloom Kitchen is one of the countless Garden State restaurants preparing for the return of outdoor dining on June 15 after three months of pandemic-imposed takeout and delivery service. Gov. Phil Murphy announced the shift Monday with the requirements that tables are placed six feet apart, eight or fewer customers are seated together and employees to wear face coverings and gloves.

a group of people walking in front of a building: Razza, the wildly popular Jersey City pizzeria, is one of many restaurants weighing its outdoor dining options. © Michael Dempsey | The Jersey Journal/nj.com/TNS Razza, the wildly popular Jersey City pizzeria, is one of many restaurants weighing its outdoor dining options.

While Garden State restaurateurs are largely excited for the opportunity to reconnect with diners — as well as the coming financial rebound — the logistical nightmares associated with such a dramatic shift still loom with uncertainty.

Does a given business have enough outdoor space and if not, can more be created? How are they going to handle the weather? Does it make financial sense to reopen now, or should they bite the bullet and wait until indoor dining returns? And most importantly, how do you keep staff and customers safe with the specter of a COVID-19 spike looming?

“You have to start all over again and figure yourself out," Robinson said. “There’s just really no answers right now. ...There’s a lot of experimenting going on.”

Meanwhile the pitfalls and untold financial burdens are everywhere.

The price of outdoor furniture alone was among the reasons lauded Millburn eatery Common Lot will remain shuttered until indoor dining resumes.

“We even looked at renting outdoor furniture for the time being, for like a month, until we knew we could do inside dining," head chef Ehren Ryan said. "But even that was astronomically expensive. So we’re just like, the cost was too high.”

Ryan also looked into renting a tent to protect from the elements. But even with proper cover, bad weather could potentially ruin a business’s night. Not to mention the sweltering summer heat and pesky bugs. Some are restaurants are considering fans, but it’s unclear what that could mean for spreading the coronavirus, they say.

And what about ambiance — another line item many eateries that have already taken losses for three months can scarcely afford.

“We wanted to string lights outside,” Robinson said. "The electrical and labor is going to be like $1,500, and the lights are around $500 — now that’s just $2,000 just to hang up some lights.”

Making space

Though physical space itself is the highest hurdle. With tables required to be six feet apart, many spots are looking to sidewalks and side alleys. Some aren’t even sure how much space is theirs to use.

Turning parking lots into dining areas is one option, but can require permission from the town and create zoning issues — not to mention subsequent parking problems.

Cardinal Provisions, a popular brunch spot in Asbury Park, typically has three two-top outdoor tables for its Bangs Avenue location, but they’ll have to drop that to two tables to conform to proper social distancing requirements. Co-owner Laura Brahn says they’re discussing with neighboring businesses to potentially place tables in front of their properties, but their plan is still up in the air.

“We are trying to figure out what our cheapest possible option is for virtually creating an entirely new space that adheres to new guidelines,” Brahn said. “And blocks people from the sun, blocks people from the rain and gives them enough space that they’re safe, but also that allows us to feed enough of them on site to account for our overhead costs.”

Asbury Park could potentially join Jersey City, Hoboken, Ridgewood and Red Bank among the list of towns that are closing streets either partially or completely to give restaurants more outdoor space. But it’s still unknown how that space will be allocated, or if it will be enough to make outdoor dining profitable.

Critically acclaimed Jersey City pizza spot Razza’s limited outdoor seating could be expanded now that portions of Grove Street have been blocked off for restaurants. But owner Dan Richer says they’re still formulating their outdoor plan.

“We have a decent amount of store frontage and we have the extension into the street, [but] a lot of restaurants that don’t have that opportunity,” Richer said. "Only putting out one or two tables ... those tables need to be served by someone. And that means bringing in an additional employee or two. And is there enough revenue from those tables to warrant paying additional staff?”

10 days to go

The importance of being profitable now is clear to Mignogna as anyone. His other Asbury Park eatery, Modine, closed its doors for good in early June because of coronavirus. Talula’s will have to balance safety and profitability. He and his wife, co-owner Shanti Mignogna, are considering using disposable menus on which diners could write their order and bring them to a waiter, sort of like a Dim Sum menu. But like many restaurants in the state, their plan is not yet fully in place.

Despite the challenges, the restaurant industry understands it’s a necessary step before welcoming diners back inside. The New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association advocated for this plan, filled with many sanitation safeguards, and is confident its members are up for the challenge — confident enough that NJRHA President Marilou Halvorsen says they pushed for June 12 to be the opening date in order to salvage a summer weekend.

But with less than 10 days before restaurants open their doors again, more plans will have to start snapping into place.

“We’re going to have maybe three or four different options and we’re going to kind of discuss them all with everyone,” Steve Mignogna said. “Do you have disposable plates and silverware, or do you use yours and then wash them you know, things like that. What style service is it going to be, taking into account the safety of everyone.”

It won’t be easy, but the industry is excited to once again do what it does best — serve people food face-to-face. And those making the food are confident people are just excited to come be served after three months of takeout and home cooking.

“I think people are going to be excited to come out and be able to eat really good food again,” Robinson said. “And dine, and have hospitality, and be waited on and not have to clean up after themselves."

Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.

Jeremy Schneider may be reached at jschneider@njadvancemedia.com. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.

———

©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

Visit NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J. at www.nj.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AdChoices

More From NJ.com

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon